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Domestic airlines have chosen an incrementally rising flight path for this year’s winter season to claw back to pre-pandemic levels of activity. That’s the reading from the granular flight schedules that they have submitted to the aviation regulator. This suggests that airlines are expecting a modest and gradual rise in passenger demand during this period, not a sharp bounceback.

Twice a year, airlines submit a detailed outline of their plans: a summer schedule (typically, April to September), and a winter schedule (October to March), the latest of which was released recently. In these schedules, each airline lists its planned routes, number of flights, aircraft make and timings. Put together, this is a measure of the seat capacity likely to be available during the designated period.

Winter schedule 2021 saw airlines ferry 55 million domestic passengers, or 78% of winter 2019, the last period that was largely unaffected by covid-19. In winter 2021, they had outlined a seat capacity of about 75 million. For winter 2022, they have increased their stated capacity by 6% to about 80 million. Whether they continue the upward climb in passengers, and at what rate, will be watched.

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There are significant variances in individual flight paths, which could reshape the sector. Market leader IndiGo and Tata Group flagship Vistara show healthy increases in stated seat capacity and gains in share of seat capacity. Beleaguered SpiceJet has just about held on. The other airline under pressure, Go First, is the big loser, with a year-on-year drop of 42% in stated seat capacity.

Tier-1 focus

Airlines have lined up flights from 105 airports in winter 2022, against 107 airports in winter 2021. To recover to pre-pandemic levels, airlines are throwing their weight behind their original source of growth: the large centres. Leading the way are the six tier-1 airports, each of which has a stated seat capacity of above 4 million for winter 2022. These six airports account for 56% of the industry seat capacity for winter 2022, and 58% of actual passenger movement between January and October 2022, according to the Airports Authority of India.

Against the sectoral increase of 6% in seating capacity, airlines have assigned 8.3% more departure seats this season to these tier-1 airports. Similarly, a hike of 7.7% has been earmarked for the 11 tier-2 airports, which have a 22% share in overall seat capacity. By comparison, tier-4 and tier-5 airports have seen airlines, especially Go First and SpiceJet, prune capacity.

Buoyant Bengaluru

Among the six tier-1 airports, two southern airports—Bengaluru and Chennai—have seen the highest rate of growth in seat capacity in winter 2022. Bengaluru recently added a new terminal, boosting its passenger handling capacity, to go with the second runway it commissioned in December 2019. Coupled with Mumbai’s constraints to expand capacity, Bengaluru could inch closer to the number two spot. Other tier-I and tier-II airports that have seen significant increases in capacity this season are Pune, Ahmedabad, Visakhapatnam and Bhubaneswar. In this set, declines are seen for Goa, Patna and Srinagar.

Among smaller airports, there are 24—or, nearly a quarter of all airports seeing commercial flights—where the cutback in seat capacity exceeds 20%. Included in these are centres with a seat capacity above the 200,000 mark for winter 2022 (Gorakhpur, Leh, Darbhanga), as well as marginal ones (Pathankot, Kishangarh, Kandla). One reason is the continuity issues facing the Centre’s regional connectivity scheme.

Solidity and fragility

In choices relating to their basket of centres, each of the four prominent domestic players appears to have taken a different flight path for the winter of 2022. Among the four, IndiGo has increased or retained capacity for three of every four of its centres—the highest. Following it is SpiceJet, though it is struggling with cash and credibility after a series of safety issues. Go First has seen cutbacks in 9 of every 10 routes.

The troika of Tata airlines is an interesting story, with centre gains and losses at similar levels. The portfolio of Tata airlines are all in restructuring mode, and the current schedule appears to reflect that. There’s no big-bang increase in capacity to challenge IndiGo for now. This also reflects the overall market outlook, with headwinds arising from passenger demand and low availability of spare parts.

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data.

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